“This should be agony. I should be a mass of aching muscle — broken, spent, unable to move.
And, were I an older man, I surely would…
But I’m a man of 30 — of 20 again.
The rain on my chest is a baptism.
I’m born again.”
Batman, The Dark Knight Returns #1
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN 1986 AS “BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS #1-#4”
This, too, must end.
Ask any Bat-fan worth their salt what the narrative with the biggest impact to the character’s overall presence is, and I’d bet good money the most prolific answer you’ll get is The Dark Knight Returns. I’m gonna generalise here and suggest it’s the most oft-cited Bat-story ever printed (besides his debut in Detective Comics #27, of course), and the evidence for that is in the sheer number of times it gets namechecked whenever an adaptation – visual, literary or critical – pays homage to Frank Miller’s landmark work. Christopher Nolan’s retired Batman in The Dark Knight Rises? The death of the Joker in Arkham City? The post-apocalyptic, criminally-infested version of Gotham we got in Grant Morrison’s Batman #666? Those surface-level threads link back to Miller and The Dark Knight Returns, and that’s just stuff I can think of off the top of my head.
In the grand tradition of all the Bat-reviews I’ve covered this week, I’ll open with a watered-down plot premise: Gotham’s in its death throes, overrun by crime in a futuristic dystopia where Batman’s retired and most of his family are either missing, in government employ or just dead. After one particularly bad night – hell, maybe he even had that nightmare I covered yesterday – Bruce Wayne decides to throw caution to the wind, haul his geriatric body up and get back to kicking ass as Batman. In a way that reminds me of what Nolan suggested about supervillains at the end of Batman Begins – being that the sheer presence of a guy in black rubber dressed as a member of the chiroptera family inevitably brings out the crazies – Bruce’s return to the crime scene sparks a greater conflict in Gotham that could quite literally see the city wiped off the map.
If I was confident that I could hold your attention for the 20,000 words thesis necessary to at least start scratching the surface of what makes The Dark Knight Returns work like gangbusters, I’d do it. Probably with interpretive dance and a Richard Burton impression just to make it a bit more engaging. The truth is – and this may sound, as much of what I post on this website, like something of a cop-out – I cannot do justice to this book in the mere space of a 1200-word review. There’s a plethora of aspects I could enter into: Bruce’s unwavering spirit that defies old age; the heteronormative masculine paradigms inherent to said spirit defying old age; duality overcome as Bruce becomes far less Bruce and almost entirely solely Batman with a singular identity; government forces of order through strength in moves that seemed to foreshadow elements of the War on Terror; the illegality of superheroes that was also covered in Watchmen…
Like I said, if I had the confidence, I’d do the Burton dance.
There’s so much tightly packed into the page count of The Dark Knight Returns that people have literally written papers and entire books just on aspects of study related to it. As mentioned previously, it’s one of the trio of books that includes The Killing Joke and Watchmen that dared to paint a cynical, grounded and realistic portrait of a hero’s last days in a world far removed from the camp and colour of the Adam West 1960s series. It’s a deconstructive text bearing a lot of sympatico with Watchmen, though I’d argue there’s a bit more optimism here than in Alan Moore’s magnum opus. Then again they’re both hellishly depressing in their own ways, so maybe optimism’s a relative concept.
The more I think about it, The Dark Knight Returns really did set the tone for a lot of Batman’s representation in the decades following it. He might not be an old man in the comics, animated series, video games and motion-comic tea towels, but the brooding, grim, somewhat cynical and overwhelmingly indomitable persona permeates almost every representation since 1986 to a certain degree. If the rumblings surrounding that Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice Which Is Actually A Really Ridiculous Title film are accurate, then our rising Batffleck will take cowl and character from The Dark Knight Returns when he hits screens in 2016, a full thirty years since the book was released. So that should tell you a little something about TDKR‘s enduring nature right there.
Impact and Influence
Ironically, the tremendous impact of The Dark Knight Returns is a double-edged sword. It’s a great story, a different take, a deconstructionist work, and set the tone for Bats and a few of his contemporaries in the years to follow.
That tone-setting, though, is kind of a problem.
One of the biggest complaints leveled at last year’s Man of Steel film was its tendency to cling a bit too close to the dark and depressing tonality end of the spectrum, which in turn was inspired by Nolan’s Dark Knight movies clinging to it, which was in turn at least partly because the comics were clinging to it in Knightfall and No Man’s Land and being super-popular, which was in turn because of The Dark Knight Returns – and because that tone clearly works both critically and financially, why fix what ain’t broke?
The problem with continuously drawing from the well of inspiration The Dark Knight Returns provided is what once was invigorating becomes stagnant. Have a read of this piece by Abraham Rieseman on why constantly eschewing other takes in favour of the grimdark Batman we know, love and want to hug might not be the way to go. I recommend it even if only because he suggests films based both on Gotham Central and Scott Snyder’s current run, as well as a Japanese-language Bat-film based on that manga from the 60s; I would watch all three in a heartbeat.
An additional issue, also mentioned in Rieseman’s piece, is that TDKR tends to overshadow a lot of other works pre-1986. Just look at the reviews I’ve done for the past week – nothing before 1986. Most of DC’s marketing prominently features books published in the wake of TDKR. Hell, can you even name an arc off the top of your head that took place before Miller came aboard? (ok, whomever reads this and can name an arc from pre-1986 off the top of their head, please disregard)
Instead, the titles we recall off the tops of our heads are all the darker takes that drew their genesis from The Dark Knight Returns. We don’t really consider the lighter, action-oriented schlock pieces of the 60s, or at least not any specific story. Instead we remember Batman’s back breaking in Knightfall. We remember Gotham City decaying in slow death during No Man’s Land. We think of Grant Morrison’s run, of Jason Todd’s demise in A Death in the Family, of psychotic brotherly sociopathy in The Black Mirror, and of clandestine governmental conspiracy in The Court of Owls.
And, of course, we most definitely remember how Batman began, how his nemesis was born, how he can never trust anybody, and how thin his line between hero and villain truly is.
Please don’t mistake my meaning here: I do not hate or dislike The Dark Knight Returns, or believe it’s an unworthy book to be held in high esteem. Nor do I believe any of the works I’ve described in the paragraphs above are bad because the darkness pervades them all. I’ll be the first to admit I much prefer to grittier, more grounded approach to Batman compared to the light and fluff of the Adam West days. I think if we hadn’t had that shift towards darker storytelling we might not be celebrating Batman’s birthday with as much verve as we have today. But at the same time, it’s something to keep in mind going forward. If we stuck to original templates of things without much reinvention or change of the initial premise, we’d never have abolished slavery or acid-wash jackets.
In the final analysis, The Dark Knight Returns deserves its place as a – but, in my mind, not the – definitive Batman book in 75 years of canon. It might be a bit like the Casablanca of Bat-books – in that it introduced several tropes and elements that other works have taken and developed further afterwards – but you owe it to yourself, especially as a student of Bat-history, to read it. If nothing else, the battle that closes the book between Batman and Superman is, to slip into the colloquial for a moment, totally goddamn sweet.
PUBLISHER: DC COMICS
That’s the end of Batman Week, folks. Thanks so much for taking this impromptu journey with me through five of the Dark Knight’s greatest endeavours. Who knows, maybe some of you will return in a quarter-century when we celebrate 100 years with a new slew of five books (of which I’m certain at least one will be written by Scott Snyder because I LOVE HIM YOU GUYS).
Part of what makes Batman so enduring, recreateable and endurable is his constant regeneration within pop culture canon across decades. Much like his own self-stated purpose at the end of The Dark Knight, he is whatever we need him to be: a light-hearted comedic saviour, a gritty avenger of the night, a mouthpiece for those whose words cannot be heard, and a defence against those who prey on the fearful. He is an ultimate cultural icon that might never truly cease to exist or remain relevant, as long as minds whose imaginations are captured by his exploits are then spurred to continue his regenerative journey.
After we’re all gone, I think Batman will still be here. He doesn’t belong to any one of us (except maybe DC Comics, but that’s a much more literal thing and this is a metaphor). We just carry him along a little, keep that popularity burning bright and hand him off to the next generation to repurpose him as what they need.
“All I really need to know is this: Batman always comes back, bigger and better, shiny and new.
Batman never dies.
It never ends.
It probably never will.”
– Commissioner Gordon, Batman Incorporated: Gotham’s Most Wanted